One of the key challenges faced by parents raising a sensitive child is leading them into vulnerable territory. They may try to avert attention away from difficult topics, erupt in silliness when facing something that is emotionally charged, or just tell you, “I don’t want to talk about it.” The goal is not to push a sensitive child into vulnerable territory but to read their needs and lead them there gently.
Approximately 15 to 20% of children fall on the sensitivity spectrum and are more likely to be affected by environmental stimuli (1). Their experience of the world is heightened given their enhanced receptivity to it, with some unable to filter out irrelevant information. It is as if they were born with a thinner skin and are not buffered against the noise, sights, and sensations that bombard and overwhelm them. As a result, things that are distressing can be felt more intensely with big reactions potentially ensuing. They are typically difficult to draw out when it comes to talking about emotionally charged subjects. Research on sensitivity has linked it with an increased likelihood of mental health and addiction issues with heightened emotionally vulnerability playing a key role in these challenges (2). The same research also demonstrates that when sensitive kids are afforded good home environments they can thrive and flourish.
Four Strategies to Support Sensitive Kids
There are number of strategies parents can employ that will help lead their sensitive kids into vulnerable territory when needed (3). It starts with having at least one person with whom they have a strong relationship with and who is able to make some sense of their big internal world. What they need most of all are adults who won’t shame or hold their intense reactions against them.
- Shield and Protect
One of the common mistakes made with sensitive kids is treating them as if they were the same as other children. It is important to consider when to shield and protect them from experiences that would be too overwhelming and stressful and not push them to be like other kids. Sensitive kids do not have a ‘skin’ to buffer against the outside world so a caring adult will need to play this role. If too much stimulation or distressing situations are pushed on them, it can overload them with thoughts and feelings giving rise to frustration and alarm type reactions. There will be times to introduce a child to new things and times to recognize when it is too much, such as watching scary movies, going to parties with lots of people and noise, or being left on their own in structured activities when younger. Every sensitive child is different and needs at least one strong caretaker who can read their needs and take the lead in shielding and protecting them.
- Cultivate Resilience to Match Sensitivity
While our children may be born sensitive, it is their environment that can help them develop the resiliency that will match their sensitivity levels. While we need to shield them from stress that is too overwhelming, we don’t want to remove all upset from their life. They don’t need to be toughened up, they just need to face things that are disappointing, that can’t be changed, and to feel vulnerable feelings and realize they can survive this. Sometimes we need to wait for the intensity of their experience to subside and to come back to them later. As we circle back around to incidents we can tell them we will make it easy for them to hear what we have to say.
Sensitive kids will need to have a good relationship with their tears as there are often many things that frustrate them and need adapting to. Sometimes it is very hard to hear ‘no’ answers to their requests, especially when they have strong desires that drive them. They need caretakers who can invite, accept, support, and make room for their big feelings to be expressed in ways that preserve the child’s dignity and keep others safe. They don’t need to be ‘calmed down’ but allowed to express what is inside of them. Signs that a sensitive child is stuck emotionally may include not being able to cry tears or express sadness and disappointment, regression in their self-control, increased frustration and aggression, as well as elevated resistance and opposition. If they get stuck, it is time to consider how to increase attachment and reduce separation, using one’s caretaking to resuscitate their emotional systems.
3. Stay in the Lead
Sensitive kids can have big emotional reactions, which can confound and displace their caretakers. Sometimes they feel intimidating to care for, that they are too much to handle, or that a parent doesn’t know what to do with them. Conveying they are too much to handle does little to convey confidence in a caretaker to lead them through vulnerable emotions. The child’s brain may move to press down or inhibit these feelings in order to make the relationship work for the parent, possibly leading to escalation’s of erupting emotion at other times. If we convey to a child they are too much, it can interfere with feeling they can be cared for by us. We need to seize the lead in caring for them, read their needs, work ahead of problems to ensure they can navigate through without overwhelm and high alarm, all while ensuring they are not spared upset. It is a delicate dance to be sure, but one that is possible when you make sense of your sensitive child and truly understand what they need most from you.
- Create Opportunities for More Expressive Activities
Given the busy internal world of the sensitive child, there is a commensurate need for expression in order to balance out their emotional systems. They often need more expressive activities such as art, drawing, music, building, creating, moving, dancing, or writing in order to provide emotional stability. Being able to play where there are no expectations on performance or outcomes helps draw out their internal world and release emotional energy. Sometimes there are no words for their experiences but it is in play where they can express the world that is stirred up inside of them. Play should offer a sensitive child a safe space where vulnerable feelings can be felt and expressed without facing any repercussions for their behaviour.
If we want to understand the emotional world of our sensitive kids we will need to be patient and to watch, listen, make sense of, and give room for their feelings and emotions to be expressed. They cannot be pushed or hurried through their upset and sometimes they will need a shield to buffer them against too much distress, especially until their resiliency can be cultivated. What they need most from us is to realize there is nothing wrong with being more intense in one’s reactions or easily stirred up with vulnerable emotions. When a sensitive child gives their heart to us for safe keeping we will be trusted to lead them through the emotional storms that are part of life.
(1) Boyce, T. (2014). Orchid children and the science of kindness. Dalai Lama Centre for Peace and Education, Vancouver, BC. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mSrc0GFpJw
(2) Ellis, B.J., Boyce, W. T. (2005). Biologial sensitivity to context: Empirical explorations of an evolutionaly-developmental theory. Development and Psychopathology. V. 17,(2), pp. 303-328.
(3) Neufeld, G. The Power to Parent III: Common Challenges, Neufeld Institute, Vancouver, BC, neufeldinstitute.org
Copyright 2016 Deborah MacNamara, PhD
Deborah is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute and in private practice working with parent of children and teens. She is the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). All work is based on the relational and developmental approach of Gordon Neufeld, PhD, please see www.macnamara.wpengine.com for more information or www.neufeldinstitute.org.